Burma Railway Set for Renaissance

By Lawi Weng 16 May 2012

The historic Burma Railway, originally built by Japanese-held prisoners of war (POWs) during World War II, is due to be restored in a new initiative which aims to improve bilateral trade with Thailand.

Burmese Railway Minister Aung Min, also a leading government peace negotiator, told the opening ceremony of the Karen National Union (KNU) liaison office in Three Pagodas Pass on Tuesday that talks were already underway with Thailand regarding construction of the railway.

Measuring 415 kilometers (258 miles) from Bangkok to Rangoon, Aung Min said that the project will also benefit the businesses of local people who live near Three Pagodas Pass. However, the railway project hinges on Naypyidaw securing a lasting peace deal with the Karen rebels.

“Our citizens will only have to make a daytrip to Thailand after construction is completed,” said Aung Min. “Local development will also grow much more than before.”

In 1943, thousands of Allied POWs and Asian laborers worked under the Imperial Japanese Army on what became known as the “Death Railway.” Around 1,740 people were killed during the construction process with many buried at nearby Kanchanaburi’s war cemetery.

The railway was abandoned over six decades ago due to fighting between the KNU and government troops. But local car drivers continue to use the route to travel from Three Pagodas Pass to Thanbyuzayat Township, Mon State, or Kyar Inn Seik Gyi Township, Karen State.

Aung Min said that the government will soon restart construction of the abandoned railway and so private vehicles would be forbidden from using the route, but that a dedicated road would be built alongside for cars.

Naypyidaw also has plans to open a Special Economic Zone in Three Pagodas Pass to aid local development, according to Nai Seik Lyi, a representative from the New Mon State Party.

Three Pagodas Pass is the KNU’s second liaison office after one was opened in Dawei (Tavoy) earlier this year. Around 400 people including Gen Mutu Say Poe, head of the Karen National Liberation Army—the KNU’s military wing, attended Tuesday’s opening ceremony.

Aung Min told those present that peace can be restored in Burma as the country is reforming its political situation and started heading towards democracy. He added that deals with ethnic armed groups were crucial to bring the country out of poverty and aid development, and asked KNU leaders to help him maintain a permanent peace.

Mutu Say Poe said that the KNU has been fighting for equal rights through armed struggle for 63 years and that there have been countless Burmese and Karen deaths since the country gained independence.

“We want the government to be sincere when they talk about solving political problem,” he said. “The permanence of peace depends on the sincerity of the government.”

Other senior officials from the Burmese government including Immigration and Population Minister Khin Yi and the Karen State Chief Minister Zaw Min also attended the office opening.